So You Want to Be Flexible: Canvas Can Help

Article by Luke Konkol

In a time when students might require extra flexibility, it’s important to remember that it should not come at the expense of instructor bandwidth. Providing extensions on student work, alternative assignments, or dropping work can have a positive impact on students, but how can we best find the sweet spot between an inflexible structure and ‘anything goes’? Some answers lie in Canvas features. In this post, I’ll share a few ideas of how you might set up Canvas for your own benefit, in addition to students’.

“I Just Need a Little More Time.”

By default when you make a Canvas assignment, it’s assigned to every student and the due dates apply accordingly. However, you can also get specific and assign different dates to individual students. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of emails asking for extensions, and masses of sticky notes and spreadsheets suggest that no method of tracking them has been totally effective. By updating the assignment dates for each student who gets an extension, Canvas will track this for you and the student alike.

Some instructors also don’t realize how late work shows up on the student side. When work is late, Canvas is overly clear, marking it with a big red “LATE”. This can be off-putting to otherwise achieving students—especially when the work is not actually late. Adjusting a student’s individual due date means their work will only be marked as late if it is submitted past their specific due date.

A Usable Gradebook

An indication of ‘late’ work also shows up in your gradebook. Unfortunately, Canvas doesn’t make their cacophony of symbols and highlights transparent anywhere within the gradebook itself, so those individual cells just turn into noise. This is less true if you can use these features of the gradebook to their full potential. One first step is using individual due dates as described above; when you do, the highlight for “late” work starts to mean something.

Excusing and Dropping

Canvas grading is also not as “all or nothing” as it first appears. What seems like a flaw can work to our advantage: anything un-graded does not count against students in the way a zero would. But it’s sometimes difficult for students (and the future you) to interpret this lack of data. Canvas has thought this one through. You can make it explicit which assignments will not be counted towards a student’s final grade by marking such assignment as “excused”.

Excusing work is a good option if the dropped score doesn’t apply to everyone, but what if you want to discount a graded item for the entire class? You can tell Canvas to drop certain assignments, such as the lowest in an assignment group, by setting up assignment group rules. The thing to remember is to enter those zeroes for missing assignments—otherwise Canvas will drop the lowest scored assignment instead.

Assignment Groups

In fact, there are several tricks you can use so the Canvas gradebook tracks scores but assignments ‘count’ differently. For example, some instructors prefer to manually assign scores elsewhere but still want Canvas to serve as the interface for student work. A rather extreme example (using labor-based grading) can be found here. Whenever you use unconventional grading methods, the key is to be transparent with students about what Canvas (and you) are doing. This guide on group weights is enough to get you started on this advanced topic, but we recommend setting up a CATL consultation if this is something you’d be interested in exploring further.

The Learning is in the Doing “So Far”

These tips demonstrate the way in which, at first blush, Canvas seems to focus its flexibility on the student side of the equation. This is to say, instructor errors (like forgetting to enter a zero) seem to unduly benefit the student. But these effects are just symptoms of a wider philosophy underlying the way Canvas works. Like any learning management system, Canvas is based on the idea that a certain transaction is taking place, but instead of focusing on a raw accumulation of points (like other LMSs) Canvas’s approach to scoring is a reflection of how students are doing “so far”. If a student only does one of ten assignments but does it well, Canvas tracks this as success.

What does this do for us? For me, it clues us into a different way to think about student progress—and one that speaks directly to students achieving objectives. If we want students to be able to X, why have a dozen assignments asking them to do so if they succeed in doing it in two or three? Despite a distaste for ‘busy work’ shared by instructors and students alike, it tends to creep into the online environment. The silver lining is that the boost in remote learning (where the necessity that we clearly articulate the work we expect from students is highlighted) has revealed the craving we all seem to have for objective-centered student work.

A Note on Objectives

So, you want a student’s grade to reflect their meeting objectives instead of a raw accumulation of points. Now what? That’s a good question—and the answer is bigger than we’ve got the space to address here. My temporary answer is a cop-out: keep your objectives in mind as the driving factor for using the techniques I’ve provided above.

But give it some further thought. If this idea of objectives-based grading is intriguing to you, consider that Canvas has a spot for you to create outcomes and that you can then attach these outcomes to assignments.

As if this weren’t enough, Canvas even has an alternative gradebook based on what they call “learning mastery” which tracks this very thing using benchmarks for mastery you set. I didn’t advertise this above because the focus of this post is on practical action you can take now to save yourself some work, but if this is something you’d like to explore further, please don’t hesitate to schedule a consultation!

What Do You Think?

How do you manage flexibility in your courses? What Canvas (or other) ‘hacks’ do you have to share with your colleagues? Let us know below! I’ve also been thinking a bit lately about how some of these practices (e.g. objective-based grading) might be worth keeping around even once things “go back to normal”. I’m curious to hear from you on this. How have your grading practices changed? Is there anything you’ve started doing that you plan on keeping going forward?

Up and Running with Remote Group Work

A Case for Group Work

Group work can elicit negative reactions from instructors and students alike. Often enough, students groan about doing it and instructors dread grading it. The process is ripe for communication breakdowns resulting in stress from both perspectives. On top of this, the digital learning environment tends to compound these issues. Why then is group work so prevalent?

The answer is that, when done well, group activities help foster engagement and build relationships. Collaborative work helps students develop important skills like effectively articulating ideas, active listening, and cooperation with peers. Collaborative assignments correlate strongly with student success positioning them as one of eight high-impact practices identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Making group work a worthwhile experience for students requires extra consideration and planning, but the positive gains are worth the effort.

Designing Group Work for Student Success

How can we design collaborative activities that are a quality learning experience for students? Scaffolding makes sure students are confident in their understanding of and ability to execute the activity. UW-Extension has created a helpful guide on facilitating group work that outlines three key suggestions to get you started. First, be sure students understand the purpose of the activity, in terms of what they are supposed to learn from it and why it is a group activity. Second, provide support so students have the necessary tools and training to collaborate. You are clear how and when students are to collaborate or provide suggestions. You ensure students understand how to use the needed technologies. Finally, providing opportunities for peer- and self-evaluation can alleviate frustrations of unequal workload by having students evaluate their own and their peers’ contributions. As challenges arise, guide groups toward solutions that are flexible but fair to all members. When embarking on group projects, be prepared to provide students with guidance about what to do when someone on the team is not meeting the group’s expectations.

One example of this as you design your group projects is to ask yourself whether it’s important students meet synchronously. If so, how might you design the project for students with caregiving responsibilities or with full-time or “off hours” work schedules? These students may not be able to meet as regularly or at the same time as other students. See below for how this might play into assessing the group project. You might also consider whether all students need to hold the same role within the group, or if their collective project be split up based on group roles.

Consider how the group dynamics can impact student experiences. Helping students come up with a plan for group work and methods of holding one another accountable promotes an inclusive and equitable learning environment. Consider any of these tools to help your students coordinate these efforts:

Assessing Group Work

Equitable, specific, and transparent grading are crucial to group-work success. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence of Carnegie Mellon University has a great resource on how to assess group work, including samples. This resource breaks grading group work down into three areas. First, assess group work based on both individual and group learning and performance. Include an individual assessment component to motivate all students to contribute and help them to feel their individual efforts are recognized. Also assess the process along with the product. What skills are you hoping students develop by working in groups? Your choice of assessment should point to these skills. One way to meet this need is to have students complete reflective team, peer, or individual evaluations as described above. Finally, outline your assessment criteria and grading scheme upfront. Students should have clear expectations of how you will assess them. Include percentages for team vs. individual components and product vs. process components as they relate to the total project grade.

Tools for Working Collaboratively

Picking the right tool among a plethora of what is available is an important step. First, consider how you would like students to collaborate for the activity. Is it important that students talk or chat synchronously, asynchronously, or both? Will students share files?

The following suggestions include the main collaboration tools supported at UWGB. Click to expand the sections for the various tools below.

If you are interested in learning more about any of these tools, consider scheduling a consultation with a CATL member.

Canvas discussions are one option for student collaboration. Operating much like an online forum, discussions are best suited for asynchronous communication, meaning students can post and reply to messages at any time, in any order. If you have groups set up in Canvas, you can create group discussions in which group members can only see one another’s posts. You can also adjust your course settings so that students can create their own discussion threads as well.

If you’ve never seen VoiceThread, imagine a PowerPoint presentation in which students can leave audio, video, and text comments on every slide. It is a great tool for virtual presentations, as students can pre-record narration for slides and then embed their projects in Canvas pages, discussions, etc. to share with the rest of the class. Keep in mind however that it may take students longer to grow comfortable with VoiceThread than a tool like Canvas discussions or Office 365, which they may already be familiar with using.

Office 365 refers to the online Microsoft Office Suite, including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Students can work collaboratively and asynchronously on projects using online document versions of any of these software, which updates changes in nearly real time. Microsoft Office 365 has partial integration with Canvas, allowing students to set up and share Office documents from within Canvas using the Collaborations feature. Students will have to log in to Office 365 through their Canvas course before they can use most features of Canvas and Office 365 integration.

Collaborate Ultra is one of two web conferencing tools supported by the university, the other being Teams. Collaborate Ultra has full integration with Canvas, meaning students can access meetings and recordings from within a Canvas course. As such, it is generally easy to for students to access and use. One downside to Collaborate Ultra is that it is a purely synchronous meeting tool, so students will have to coordinate their schedules or find other ways of including members that may not be able to attend a live meeting.

Microsoft Teams is a collaboration tool that combines web conferencing, synchronous and asynchronous text communications (in the form of chat and posts), and shared, collaborative file space. Students can create a new team in MS Teams for their group project or operate in a channel of an existing class team. Microsoft Teams also has partial integration with Canvas, meaning students and instructors can create and share Teams meeting links within the New Rich Content Editor of Canvas (in pages, announcements, discussions, etc.).

Putting It into Practice

When we ask students to work collaboratively, it’s important we reveal the “hidden curriculum” by building in the steps they should take to be a successful team. As a starting point, asking students to answer these questions helps clarify the work of the group:

  • “Who’s on the team?”
  • “What are your tasks as a group?”
  • “How will you communicate?” (Asynchronously? Synchronously?)
  • “How will you ensure everyone can meet the deadlines you set?”
  • “If or When someone misses a meeting, how will you ensure that everyone has access to the information they’ll need to help you all complete the project on time?”
  • “When will you give each other feedback before you turn in the final assignment?”

For a ‘bare bones’ group assignment, take the above considerations on designing and assessing groupwork into account and create a worksheet for the student groups to fill out together. Create a Canvas group assignment to collect those agreements, assign it some points that will be a part of the whole project grade, and set the deadline for turning it in early so that students establish their plan early enough for it to benefit their group. Scaffolded activities that give students enough structure and agency is a delicate balance, but these kinds of guided worksheets and steps can help students focus their energy on the project, assignment, or task once everyone is on the same page.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

Do you have some tried and tested strategies for helping students coordinate and complete group work online? Send them our way by emailing: CATL@uwgb.edu or comment below!

Checking for Students Who Are Not Engaged in Canvas

Faculty are periodically asked to check their courses for students who are not engaged with the course and report these students in Navigate so that advisors can follow-up with the student. This page outlines the main tools that can be used to check a Canvas course for students who are not engaged.

Please note that these Canvas tools are imperfect, so CATL does not recommend that they be used for grading participation in your course.

New Analytics

Instructors can use the New Analytics tool in their Canvas course to view a sortable table of student participation data that includes the last participation date, page view count, and participation count for each student. A list of what Canvas counts as participations can be found in this guide. Here is how you can view this table in your course’s New Analytics page:

  1. Click the New Analytics button that is located on the right side of the course home page or click the New Analytics link in the course navigation menu.
    Screenshot of the New Analytics button
  2. In the New Analytics page, click the Students tab to view the table of student participation data.
  3. Click on any table column’s header to sort the list of students by that column’s data.
    Screenshot of the Canvas New Analytics student table screen highlighting the Students tab and the column headers that can be clicked for sorting the table.

Students who have not engaged with the course at all will have no or very few page views counted in this table.

Instructors can look more closely at individual students by clicking their names. Please reference this Canvas guide for more information on using New Analytics to view individual student participation statistics.

Please note that data in New Analytics refreshes once every 24 hours, so this page may not reflect recent activity in the course. The date and time the data was last refreshed are visible near the top of the page under the “Average Course Grade.”

Course Access Reports

If greater detail is needed, instructors can view a list of course pages that a student has accessed by viewing that student’s course access report. Here’s how to view the course access report for a student in your course:

  1. Open the People page of the Canvas course by clicking People in the course navigation menu.
  2. In the list of students, click on the student’s name.
  3. In the sidebar that appears on the right side of the page, click on the student’s name.
  4. Click the Access Report button located on the right side of the user details page.

Screenshot of the Access Report button in Canvas

If the access report is empty, the student has not accessed the Canvas course.

People Page

The list of students on the People page in your Canvas course contains some student participation data, including the last activity date and total activity time. Students with no date listed under the last activity column have likely never accessed the course.

The reported total activity time does not track time spent viewing the course on the Canvas mobile apps and is prone to other measurement errors, so it is often an inaccurate representation of a student’s actual engagement with a course.

One point of confusion for instructors with the People page is the presence of an “inactive” tag after a student’s name. This tag indicates that the student has dropped the course in SIS; it is not an indication of disengagement from an enrolled student.

CATL Vlog: Make Your Videos Engaging

Our first blog post on videosUsing Video Responsibly, focused on some guiding best practices to consider when creating videos for your class. While the bulk of that previous post focused on ways to add low-bandwidth alternatives to your videos in order to make content accessible for students without reliable high-speed internet, the end of the post teased strategies for keeping your students actively engaged while watching the videos. We know that many of you have found ways to use video to not just share information with your students. You are using video to check comprehension, frame discussions, and support student success initiatives. Today, we’re following up on that tease and spotlighting some of the ways UW-Green Bay faculty are transforming videos from passive learning to active engagement with their students, and, to do it, we’re turning our blog into a vlog! 

Low-Tech Solutions 

The idea of adding engagement to your videos may seem daunting, but there are a few low-tech ways built right into Canvas that can make it easier. We’ll demonstrate how to use quizzes and discussion boards with video, and the CATL team would be happy to brainstorm solutions with you specific to your teaching style and course content.  

Student Success 

Another low-tech way to help your students engage with you and your videos is to teach student success skills. One of the challenges of teaching and working remotely is not seeing your students in person. It can be hard to have conversations about success strategies. But short videos on success tips specific to your class can help students engage with your course and feel supported by you, even when they are at a distance. This video specifically showcases notetaking of a video lecture, but you could build a library of short success strategy videos tailored to your class including reading and annotating texts, providing peer review feedback, posting to discussion boards, and preparing for exams. 

 

Medium-Tech Solutions 

Those who feel a little more adventurous and confident with technology, may want to explore two tools that integrate with Canvas. Both tools can take an existing video from your My Media library and add interactive elements to the playback experience, transforming that experience from passive to active. Instead of placing your video into an active context like a Discussion or Quiz as suggested above, these tools let you place the action into the video. The first tool we’ll demonstrate is Kaltura Video Quizzes, a simple tool built into My Media in Canvas that enables you to prompt your students with formative quiz questions in your videos. 

The next tool we are demonstrating is PlayPositPlayPosit takes the concept of in-video interactions and expands it far beyond what is capable with Kaltura Video Quizzes. It’s something of a Swiss Army knife for adding interactive elements to videos. PlayPosit introduces an in-video-player note-taking interface, in-video discussion boards, polling, attention-drawing video hotspots, and several additional quiz question types. Learn more about PlayPosit and how you can join UWGB’s pilot of the tool by watching the PlayPosit “bulb” below: 

UWGB started its PlayPosit pilot in Fall 2020, and it has already won over a couple of faculty champions. UWGB’s own Jolanda Sallmann, Associate Professor of Social Work, was kind enough to record a video testimonial about her use of PlayPosit for inclusion in our vlog. 

Going Deep 

There are A LOT of tools out there for working with video, and we want to wrap up this vlog by quickly highlighting a few more. Our last video shows two tools available for dipping your toes into the world of video editing and highlights toolthat can let your students comment on your videos with videos of their own. 

Stay in Touch!

We want to thank you again, in text-form this time, for reading and watching this vlog post. Please reach out to CATL if you have any questions about engaging uses for video in your classes. We’d love to hear about what you do with your videos to keep students engaged and what excites you the most about these strategies, so please leave a comment below, or check out the discussion boards in CATL’s Solidarity Café.